Why Americans Don’t Understand the British

Declan Mulkeen

6 Apr 2016

Two countries separated by a common language. This widely quoted phrase (purportedly said by the Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw) is often used to describe the difference between the United States and the United Kingdom. But how true is this quote and how difficult is it for each nation to understand the other?

British English and American English have diverged enormously over the centuries since the founding fathers landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. This language divergence can lead to communication challenges if you are not prepared or used to the language of your American or British “cousins”. 

American Expats “Fail” More Moving to the UK – Why?

Research has shown that America expats have more problems adjusting to British culture than they do seemingly “alien” cultures such as Saudi Arabia or Japan.

Why is this? Well there are many reasons – but undoubtedly language will play its part. Very often international assignees will experience the greatest culture shock when moving between outwardly “similar” countries. Perhaps it is the lack of preparation or the expectation that everything will be fine – they speak the same language as me  after all!

British English and American English have diverged enormously over the centuries since the founding fathers landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620.

The conundrum of British vs. American English

Many businesses working with British and American organisations can probably relate to the confusion over ‘tabling’ an agenda

Words used in different countries or sometimes even in different regions of the same country may have different meanings that are not always immediately apparent.

Many businesses working with British and American organisations can probably relate to the confusion over ‘tabling’ an agenda, when it soon becomes apparent that the British are becoming frustrated with the lack of discussion whereas the Americans have forgotten all about it.

Watch this video to find out how American English is perceived by the British.

Even more subtly, a British person, who is quite enthusiastic about a project, may be less than enamoured of it whereas their American colleague may be very enthusiastic indeed. It’s worth checking out this recent blog that explains the difference between what a British person says and what they mean.

Same language, different cultures

The challenge is in understanding how the two cultures may interpret these very different behaviours

Spoken language also contains slang and cultural references that may not travel well. Harvard Business Review highlighted this phenomenon with their article ‘Common Language Doesn’t Equal Common Culture’. The article highlighted the cultural differences between the two countries over self promotion.

  • Americans often go into ‘sell mode’, where they may assert how their contributions are invaluable and their achievements are awesome.
  • Their British counterparts are much more likely to be modest, understated and self deprecating about their achievements, often to the point of discomfort if their achievements are highlighted publicly.

The challenge is in understanding how the two cultures may interpret these very different behaviours. Without finding a cultural bridge over which to interpret each other’s behaviour, misunderstandings can easily occur.

How do the Americans and the British perceive each other?

Americans may interpret their British counterparts to be not confident and perhaps not even qualified for their own job.

On the other hand, the British may interpret their American counterparts as full of themselves and perhaps not very trustworthy.

An example of a classic misunderstanding

Organisations can minimise language misunderstandings by agreeing to a common set of terms

The dangers of cultural references are often found in the language of sport, where one culture doesn’t understand the analogies of the other culture’s language. A brilliant example of this is when a British colleague was told by his American colleagues that they were in the ‘red zone’ with their particular idea.

Not understanding the American football reference, the British response was to point out they weren’t sure if being in the red zone was good or bad, but they did know it probably ‘wasn’t cricket’ – to the utter confusion of their American counterparts.

How to minimise language misunderstandings?

Common language doesn’t equal common culture. Organisations can minimise language misunderstandings by agreeing to a common set of terms, define processes of clarification and keeping cultural references that don’t travel well to a minimum.

This is generally preferable to the old argument of which dialect to use, i.e. ‘the Brits exported the true English language globally’ vs. ‘more people understand American English’.

The danger in this last argument is that we could all be speaking a variety of Indian English before too long!

 



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